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Challenged by Holiday Time Spent with Family? Explore My Build-Your-Own Holiday Coping Kit.

In need of better boundaries with family during the holidays? Read this. | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

I’m imagining that for you – like me – these last few days may have been particularly emotionally challenging.

From the huge emotional impact of devastating world events like the attacks on Paris and Beirut to the unique strains and stressors that may be taking place within your own life, you may feel yourself particularly strained, challenged, and overwhelmed now as the days darken and winter arrives.

In need of better boundaries with family during the holidays? Read this. | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

Challenged by Holiday Time Spent with Family? Explore My Build-Your-Own Holiday Coping Kit.

And to top it all off, it’s now officially holiday season.

Admittedly, for some, this can be “the most wonderful time of the year.” (And if that’s the case for you – awesome! Enjoy every minute of it.)

But for many of us, not even accounting for the impact of global catastrophes, the next six weeks can be one of the most triggering, challenging, emotional, and exhausting times of the entire year. Especially – let me repeat, especially! – if we plan on spending any portion of it with our families.

Because, let’s face it, not all of us grew up with or married into sane, healthy, functional, supportive families.

The holidays are a time of the year when, if we spend it with our families, many of us might experience ancient frustrations, young feelings, a slip backwards into unhealthy communication patterns and coping habits, and just generally wonder where that otherwise functional, healthy adult version of us has disappeared to.

Writer Elizabeth Gilbert summed it up neatly when she said:

“I had a great teacher in India who said to me, ‘If you think you’re spiritual and evolved and enlightened, go home for Christmas and see how it goes.”


If spending the holidays with family feels hard for you, you’re not alone. If it feels like all your well-earned insights about yourself and the creative coping mechanisms you’ve developed over the last year in therapy or the School of Life dissolve in the face of your holiday family dynamics, that makes sense, and it’s okay. It’s a very hard time of the year for many of us.

And because this time of year can be hard for so many, in today’s blog post I want to help you craft and create a Build-Your-Own Holiday Coping Kit to help you prepare and plan for self-care over the holidays (or really, for any time that the events of life feel like too much). 

So pour yourself a cup of tea and keep reading…

Build-Your-Own Holiday Coping Kit.

As you probably know, when tough times hit, you may get triggered, flooded, or just generally thrown off balance. When you go home for the holidays with your family, the stability, grounding, comfort, and confidence you may feel in your day-to-day may be challenged. Greatly challenged. So in order to support yourself in navigating those challenges, you can plan and prepare in advance by:

1) Acknowledge and expecting that you may get challenged;

2) Get curious about how and why you get challenged;

3) Get curious about how you usually respond to being challenged around your family;

4) Get creative and actionable about how you cope and self-soothe when you’re challenged, and

5) Put it all together so you have a list of insights and supports that you can turn to if things get tough over the holidays with your family.


These four steps form the basis of your Build-Your-Own Holiday Coping Kit. So now, as we dive into exploring each of these steps, I invite you to crack open your journal or load up a new Google Doc and write down your answers to each of the inquiries and exercises I’m about to walk you through. If you do this, you’ll walk away with a customized Build-Your-Own Holiday Coping Kit that you can use during these next six weeks to help support your self-care.

Step One: Recognize and Understand (as best you can) Your Triggers.

  • List out five examples of the people, places, situations, and content that have historically triggered you. (example: conversations about religion, getting stuck having to clean up Christmas dinner by yourself while your siblings go out for a drink, etc.)
  • List out five examples of how you usually respond when you’re feeling triggered. What thoughts and urges and feelings typically come up for you? (example: I feel the urge to flee, to run away, to hop on a plane and GO — I feel panicked and trapped.)
  • List out five examples of what has helped you in the past when you’re feeling triggered? List a few examples of what hasn’t helped. (example: Calling my best girlfriend has helped. Trying to get my Uncle to see how he hurt my feelings has not helped – that was a losing battle. Eating a whole tin of fudge didn’t actually help in the long run.)

Step Two: Work on What You Can.

  • List out five examples of how you can structure time with your family so as to not feel so triggered. (examples: Can you stay at a hotel versus at your parents’ place? Rent a car if you need to simply need to get away when you’re feeling triggered? Plan some dates with a loving friend who you know will be in town?)
  • List out five examples of how you can set boundaries with your family members — verbally, physically, and emotionally. (examples: I won’t participate in any family conversations about politics. I will politely tell my Aunt to stop asking me when I plan on having children and will change the conversation to my cousin’s new job instead. I will not go for a car ride alone with my brother anymore.)
  • List out a few examples of any things you may need to realistically talk about, address, or process with family members in order to create better contact over the holidays. (examples: Is there an apology you need to make? An apology you need to ask for? What are five things you may want to say or hear to help heal a fractured relationship? Hint: check out my blog posts on assertive communication and tips to improve your communication to support any dialogues you may wish to have.)

Step Three: Recognize and Release Attachment to What You Probably Cannot Change.

Despite all our hard-earned skillful communication tools and our well-won embodied relational know-how, sometimes we simply cannot effectively communicate with our families and/or get our needs and wants met by them. And so I think it’s critical to build a step of releasing attachment to what we cannot change into the Holiday Coping Kit. Awareness about what simply isn’t likely to change may help set more realistic expectations for us as we head into holidays with family.

  • List out five things that you imagine you simply never will be able to change/adjust/set boundaries around/alter in your family dynamics over the holidays. List out five examples of things you are willing to release attachment to over this holiday season. (examples: maybe a certain relative will most likely never own her part in a conflict and apologize for the hurtful impact she had – she may not have the relational skills to do this. Can you release attachment to this?)

Step Four: Fill Your Holiday Coping Kit With Self-Soothing Interventions.

Now that we’ve brought our awareness to how we might get triggered, how we respond when triggered, become curious about what’s actionable and changeable, and recognized and released attachment to what’s likely not going to change, we’re now going to fill your coping kit with self-soothing interventions — a personalized, tailored-for-time-with-family-over-the-holidays list of creative ways you can take good care of yourself if and when you get triggered.

  • The Safe Harbor List: List out five people you can call/text/Skype/message who can hold space for you/help you process/feel sane again. (examples: Friends, mentors, your therapist, etc. — Bonus points if you list out and program their numbers into your cell phone before you head out for the holidays!)
  • The Things That Ground You List: List out five things that ground you when you’re feeling off-balance. (examples: Physical practices like weight lifting, spending time looking at Facebook photos of you and your friends back home, eating something hearty like potatoes or squash.)
  • The Things That Comfort You List: List out five things that bring you tons of comfort when you’re feeling stressed. (examples: your favorite fleece sweatshirt? A cherished copy of your favorite guilty pleasure book? A hot shower with a fancy new bar of soap?)
  • The Places and Activities That Help You Feel Good: List out five examples of places you can go to or miscellaneous activities you can do (solo or together) while with family over the holidays. (examples: A daily walk to the coffee shop in your mom’s small town. A quick car ride to a nearby park where you feel a sense of calm watching dogs play. Leading your nieces and nephews in the construction of a gingerbread house.)
  • A List of Mantras and Wisdom-Bits You Can Say To Yourself: List out five mantras or empowering beliefs you can say to yourself on repeat to help you center.

Step Five: Putting This All Together.

If you’ve been writing down your answers to these inquiries, you should now have a pretty robust list of insights and awareness into how you may be triggered when spending time with family over the holidays, and a list of actionable steps you can take, either to adjust the family dynamics you’ll be walking into or to take very tender and good care of your precious self if you feel thrown off balance over the next six weeks. 

All of this – each and everything you listed – can be part of your proverbial Holiday Coping Kit to ensure that you take really good care of yourself over the holidays — or during any challenging time when the events of our personal lives or the events of our global lives feel like too much.

And, for even more ideas and resources about how to self-soothe while with over the holidays (or during any time of challenge), I encourage you to check out my blog post on how to build your own emotional first aid kit, and also to read my e-book, “A Little Handbook for Life’s Tough Times” which has over 80+ additional creative and actionable ideas you could incorporate into your Holiday Coping Kit.

Finally, I want you to remember that holidays can be very hard for many of us. So I invite you to be very gentle and tender with yourselves and to seek support when you need it over these next few weeks. In fact, I have two spaces open in my private practice right now, so if you’d like expert support with navigating holiday time with family or with anything else, I’d love to work with you personally. Drop me a line at annie@anniewright.com or call me at 510-373-2723 and I’ll get back to you right away.

Now I’d love to hear from you: What self-care tools would YOU include in your Holiday Coping Kit? Leave a message in the blog comments below to share even more creative and supportive self-care ideas.

If you would like additional support right now and you live in California or Florida, please feel free to reach out to me directly to explore therapy together.

Or if you live outside of these states, please consider enrolling in the waitlist for the Relational Trauma Recovery School – or my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries, designed to support you in healing your adverse early beginnings and create a beautiful adulthood for yourself, no matter where you started out in life.

And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie

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  1. Charles Horowitz, Ph.D. says

    Great, Annie! I’m married to Janat Dundas now Horowitz, in Boulder. I was Esalen resident ’81-85 and am a therapist. Cheers/metta

    • Annie says

      Hi Charles,

      How wonderful that you were a fellow Esalen resident and are now a therapist.

      Thanks so much for stopping by to connect and I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      Warmly, Annie

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